Researchers at Columbia University are estimating that omicron variant COVID-19 cases could peak in the United States by Jan. 9 with numbers at around 2.5 million cases a week, or potentially reaching 5.4 million cases weekly.
"It’s shocking. It’s disturbing," Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist who led the Columbia modeling work," told The New York Times. "We’re seeing unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 cases."
The research estimates show that cases could peak this coming week in New York City.
South Africa, where the variant was first detected, has now passed its peak number of cases, but the omicron-fueled numbers are continuing to climb elsewhere, even among people who are fully vaccinated or have already had previous COVID infections, with the United States surpassing 580,000 cases Thursday.
However, the numbers could be even higher for several reasons, including shortages of tests, at-home test results that are not reported to health agencies, holiday-related reporting delays, or even because people may not know they have COVID because their infections are asymptomatic.
Meanwhile, another model from a research group from the University of Washington last week estimated the United States' omicron infections would peak by the end of January, but those researchers say the variant's rapid spread could mean a peak will come before mid-January.
William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, commented that the omicron numbers are increasing so fast, modeling is not necessary to see where things are heading with hospitals.
"The context for all of this is that hospitals are struggling," Hanage said. "We don’t have that much spare capacity. And of course, omicron makes that worse."
New infections could decline faster in large cities such as New York, because when the virus runs out of people to infect, it will decline, said Natalie Dean, an epidemiologist at Emory University.
But even though new studies indicate that omicron may cause more mild infections than delta or other variants, the sheer number of people who are getting infected could strain hospital capabilities, especially in places where hospitals are already running out of room or in locations where vaccination rates are lower, reports The Times.
Studies on mice and hamsters show omicron causes less damaging infections particularly to the lungs, where other variants cause scarring and serious breathing difficulties.
"It’s fair to say that the idea of a disease that manifests itself primarily in the upper respiratory system is emerging," said Roland Eils, a computational biologist at the Berlin Institute of Health, one of the scientists who have studied how coronaviruses can infect a patients' airway.
The nation could also see more localized breakouts, but still, "you can’t predict the behavior of virus from just the mutations, Dr. Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, warned.
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